Perspective: The case for civic charity

The nation’s well-being must be valued over personal interests

I am a political junkie. My ancestors have roots in the Washington, D.C., area that go back generations. It’s perhaps an understatement, then, to say I’ve been shaped by living in the nation’s capital. Indeed, much of my career as a lawyer on the Hill or as a judge on the federal bench has given me a front-row seat to a few fairly dramatic political contests. 

From that vantage point, politics can sometimes feel like a blood sport driven by partisan contempt. But there is a better way, and as Matthew Holland points out in his book, “Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America,” a vital part of the DNA of this nation is “civic charity,” a deliberate decision to set aside personal interests and seek the well-being of others and the nation. The transformative progress the United States has made in creating “a more perfect union” has most often come when citizens recognize, in the words of one religious leader, “that we are in this together, we need each other, and we can resolve our differences through mutual respect, mutual understanding, and ... collaboration (in which) both sides ... seek a balance, not a total victory.” 

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The success of our republic is never guaranteed, and our divisions today bring us perilously close to transgressing Benjamin Franklin’s charge to “keep it.” Yet, a careful student will recognize civic charity as the hopeful, animating spirit of the U.S. Constitution. The document itself was born out of reasoned deliberation and compromise, and it demands the same for its continued vitality.

When civic charity is at work, the goal of our reasoning and discussion should be, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, not “to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”

Certainly, the nation has not always lived up to the full measure of civic charity. But, if we look closely, we can all see breathtaking flashes of goodness when Americans have come together to make history. In our darkest days, we should look to such moments. Even today we have not altogether squandered the capacity to call upon these “bonds of affection.” In fact, whether we choose to do so in our own time may be our generation’s greatest test of patriotism. 

Here we reflect on six notable moments of civic charity in history:

‘A city upon a hill’

One hundred and forty-five years before the first shots of the Revolution, a band of English Puritans sailed in search of freedom aboard the ship Arbella. Their destination was the trading outpost of Massachusetts Bay Colony, but they viewed their mission as much more than an economic enterprise.

In what has been described as the most fundamental expression of what would become the American experiment in self-government, John Winthrop told the group that the eyes of the world would look to them as a “city upon a hill.” They were founding their society not on the legal structures of their homeland but on the covenant of “brotherly affection,” and they would be “knit together” in unity and “uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.”

Winthrop’s lofty ideals — which were by no means easy to live by — would nonetheless set the stage for a revolutionary experiment in self-government that was to follow, a project that derived its power, first and foremost, from mutual trust in one another.

Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address

The political contest of 1800 birthed the nasty electioneering all too familiar to voters today. Federalist John Adams was seeking a second term in the White House while his friend-turned-rival Thomas Jefferson led the Democratic-Republicans in their contrasting vision of government. Both campaigns traded barbs, slandered the other and spread rumors in the press. It wasn’t until a tense, tiebreaking vote cast in the House of Representatives that Jefferson became the country’s third president.

After the ordeal, Jefferson had every justification to skewer his opponents and capitalize on the momentum that won him the White House. Instead he used his inaugural address to bind the nation’s wounds and set in place a norm that has become the hallmark of the republic’s success: the peaceful transfer of power, even by a losing president upset by the outcome of the election.

“Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind, let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things,” he said. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Abraham Lincoln’s presidency

Abraham Lincoln entered the White House with rumors of civil war about to spill onto the battlefield. The burden clearly weighed on his mind, as he spent ample portions of his first inaugural address outlining legal arguments against secession and urging Southern states to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject.” Beyond the legal arguments, however, Lincoln made an appeal to the hearts of his fellow countrymen, reminding them of their “bonds of affection” toward one another. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Still, the war came, taking the lives of more than 600,000 Americans. Lincoln’s entire presidency was consumed with bloodshed and dissension, but when the time came to address the nation at the start of a second term, he rejected the calls for retribution and vengeance against the rebellious states and reaffirmed his commitment to unity. “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” he promised to work at reconstructing a government energized by a “new birth of freedom” that extended to all. Lincoln asked of Americans the most radical challenge: that enemies embrace as friends to “achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace.”

Civil rights movement

The social climate of the Reconstruction quickly suppressed the constitutional gains afforded African Americans after the Civil War. Racism embedded itself into public laws and private hearts. 

Yet, across decades, the perseverance of those who clung to a brighter future chiseled through the lynchings, segregation, distorted juries and denial of the right to vote to help America once more reach toward its ideals. Far from repudiating America’s founding ambitions, Martin Luther King Jr. embraced them and called upon all Americans to work for their realization. “All men are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he wrote from a Birmingham jail.

A year later, legislation codified protections for equality in employment, schooling, civic and political life. Slowly the cultural tide inched toward Lincoln’s charge given 100 years earlier: “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” and to do so with an abundance of charity.

Americans with Disabilities Act

It’s difficult to imagine a society in which, a little more than 30 years ago, a qualified job applicant could be denied employment because of blindness or a paraplegic couldn’t readily enter a museum if it didn’t have a ramp.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 rectified those legal gaps for people with disabilities in an effort to help pull them from the margins of society. When once it was assumed that poor educational or employment opportunities were an inescapable result of disability, Americans started to make good on John Winthrop’s admonition to “make others’ conditions our own.”

Much of the opposition to the ADA’s mandates hinged on the cost of transforming structures or systems to reasonably accommodate all Americans. When contextualized within the dignity of life that a virtuous society ought to uphold, such arguments seem small. Civic charity won the day.

Utah compromise

While the nation’s pundits fought about the merits of a Christian baker declining to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding and speculated on the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, Utah lawmakers, religious groups and LGBT community leaders convened to announce a one-of-a-kind nondiscrimination law that achieved a balance between certain legal protections for LGBT Utahns and tailored religious exemptions.

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Most called it a compromise, but curiously others didn’t. “We didn’t compromise,” said Stuart Adams, a Republican state senator. “We found a way forward where each entity was given additional rights and protections, but no one’s core values were compromised.” 

It flummoxed national observers. One of the country’s most contentious logjams was broken. Regardless of where one stands on the particulars of the law, it illustrates the bridges civic charity can build and demonstrates the indispensable role this strand of America’s DNA must play if we are to continue to do the hard work of trying to create “a more perfect union.”

Thomas B. Griffith is a former federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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